This is only a test: Russia’s nuclear icebreaker fleet gets training on handling nuclear emergency information

Radiation symbol. (Photo: Nils Bøhmer)
Radiation symbol. (Photo: Nils Bøhmer)
Nils Bøhmer

Publish date: June 24, 2014

Written by: Anna Kireeva

MURMANSK–Depressurization of the the first reactor compartment aboard the Sovietsky Soyuz nuclear icebreaker – moored in Murmansk harbor – resulted in radioactive emissions into the atmosphere, according to scientists. There are several casualties among personnel.

MURMANSK–Depressurization of the the first reactor compartment aboard the Sovietsky Soyuz nuclear icebreaker – moored in Murmansk harbor – resulted in radioactive emissions into the atmosphere, according to scientists. There are several casualties among personnel.

Not! To repeat: Not! Everything at Atomflot, as of this writing, is completely safe.

But were it true, any information about it would be greeted with a large degree of skepticism and distrust when issued by Russian authorities, as is most information regarding nuclear incidents in Russia are, said Yelena Melikhova of the laboratory for the communication of risk assessment of the Nuclear Safety Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IBRAE in its Russian abbreviation).

The nuclear icebreaker Sovietsky Soyuz which did not – not – suffer an accident Monday. (Source: Atomflot).

This skepticism could have fatal results unless Russian nuclear officialdom tweaks its image and shifts perceptions of its work from a bunch of half-baked secretive wizards working behind a curtain to a trustworthy cadre of professional individuals dispensing timely and necessary information.

Such was the message Melikhova delivered during a daylong training session at the icebreaker port during an informational training seminar.

The nuclear industry must be open with information

“This is the first time that IBRAE has allowed itself to conduct such a training session at a facility overseen by Rosatom,” Russia’s state nuclear corporation, she said. “Rosenegoatom [Russia’s nuclear power utility] undertakes similar training sessions, but other facilities are not quite up to it,” she told reporters who took part in the Monday seminar.

Melikhova said that informing the public about radiological accidents is hardly an inspiring task for anyone and there are few people in Russia who have a basic grasp of how to do it. Nuclear Power Plants, in her assessment, are best at it, and regularly practice various scenarios, which is more than any other branch of Russia’s vast nuclear industrial and military complex can say.

“We must understand that in the era of the internet it’s impossible to hush up or hide an accident,” she said. “The efficiency and openness of an enterprise, as well as its coordinated work with staff and press services will determine to what degree the population trusts official information.”

Vyacheslav Ruksha, Atomflot’s director, said the training exercise was useful – a notion his facility had long been convinced of.

“Our first international seminar with foreign media took place in 1995 with Bellona,” said Ruksha. “It was dedicated to the Lepse [nuclear service ship].”

Ruksha said Atomflot wanted to draw attention to the plight of the radioactive hazard – a decades old nuclear service ship stuffed with spent nuclear fuel in the middle of Murmansk. At the time, Ruksha said, Bellona invited 75 foreign journalists, and the Lepse began to receive international attention, he told Bellona.

The Lepse is finally awaiting dismantlement at the Nerpa shipyard north of Murmansk.

The ‘Accident’

For the purposes of the training exercise at Atomflot, the following accident was invented: The Sovietsky Soyuz icebreaker as a result of external factors suffered damage causing the loss of coolant in the first section of the reactor installation. The reactors automatic shut down and defenses kicked in.

Over a two-hour period, the icebreaker’s crew attempted to restore the coolant system to avoid depressurization of the fuel rods. However, after two and a half hours, emissions of “an unspecified amount of radioactive particles localized at the site were released into the air and didn’t lead to any radioactive contamination outside the industrial area.”

Soon thereafter, Atomflot’s efforts localized the situation.

However, during the course of the accident, a dose-monitoring technician was injured and hospitalized with an insignificant exposure level.

Independent specialists conducted an analysis of background radiation and found that those beyond the Atomflot site did not exceed allowable natural norms. The health of the residents of Murmansk and other cities was not threatened.

Complexities of reporting and information

Many of the information-training seminar’s participants were disappointed that no one from the Murmansk Regional Administration’s press services took part in the exercise. Aside from Atomflot and the Emergency Services Ministry, it is the administration’s press service that would, in such circumstances, be inundated with calls for comment and information.

Along with international observers and reporters, representatives of the Emergency Services Ministry, IBRAE and the Federal Medical and Biological Agency, representatives of the Murmansk Regional Administration, as well as psychologists were in attendance.

The press center’s main task consisted of supplying an alert  and effective information to the public about the radioactive emissions and developments without sparking off undue panic.

Melikhova said that it’s complex business explaining to people that the radioactive background can rise by a few ticks and still remain within safe limits. Frequently, when people hear the words “radiation,” and “nuclear accident,” they panic and refuse to believe there will be no negative impact on their health and homes.

Another difficulty is that if an accident happens at a nuclear installation, Rosatom is obliged to provide information on it within a half hour. It’s widely agreed that this is close to impossible. In a circumstance like the improvised accident, the first official information would come from Russia’s Emergency Services Ministry.

What the exercise showed

Participants were overall satisfied with the organization of the exercise. Journalists applauded Emergency Services Ministry and Murmansk Administration representatives, as well as those of Atomflot.

The also noted, however, that in an actual emergency it would take much more time to receive any information due to the number of agencies that would have to coordinate their data. They also noted that in the vacuum of official information, rumors would fester, the blogosphere and social media would swirl with misinformation, and panic would likely ensue all the same.

Atomflot however said that it was confident that if this had not been an exercise, where everything was scripted by the minute beforehand, the accident would be dealt with much more quickly.

“If the leak had taken place in real time, it would have been eliminated much more quickly,” said Atomflot’s chief engineer, Mustafa Kashka.

This article was translated by Charles Digges (